The real question for the quirky Senate Democratic leader is how best to show that toughness to the world and to a hostile White House.
Will Reid always be cast as the loner and schoolyard brawler who channeled his aggression into boxing? Or will he show another side, that of the high school baseball catcher who could block the plate but also call a pitch, someone who marvels today at another “not-so-big” kid from Vegas who lives by his wits, Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Greg Maddux.
“He was a grinder,” says Don Wilson, a star second baseman on Reid’s high school team. “He didn’t have a whole lot of natural talent. ... But he had a good glove. He studied the hitters, and he caught batting practice as seriously as when he was in the game. He had tenacity.”
Baseball and boxing: two sides of Harry Reid that help explain why he is a puzzle to many. He rose in the Democratic leadership as a shrewd Senate insider, skilled at reading people and being able to reach across the aisle with a wry sense of humor. But the Democratic takeover in 2006 pushed Reid into a more public, less comfortable role, where he has felt stiffed by President Bush and compelled to swing back even as he has struggled to define himself as majority leader.
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“It puts me in a situation where, what am I supposed to do, walk away?” Reid says in an interview. “Part of my personality is, you just can’t run from a fight.”
“Fighting Harry” has become the chosen brand for Reid’s handlers, already preparing for what could be a tough reelection bid at home in Nevada in 2010. “The Good Fight — Hard Lessons From Searchlight to Washington” is the title of a forthcoming memoir. Excerpts recently leaked to The New York Post include a description of Reid beating “the crap” out of a mama’s boy in eighth grade — in front of the boy’s mother, the teacher.
But like in those fights in his past, Reid can’t escape being bruised himself. “You never won. You always got hurt,” he recalls. Decades later, Republicans caricature him as a punch-drunk brawler, lunging and missing his target.
“I consider him a friend,” says Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), but the aggressive tactics of younger conservatives echo the “Gaslight” strategy Republicans used against former Democratic leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) in the ’80s. The goal then was to push the aging West Virginian over the edge, just as a sadistic Charles Boyer tried to rattle Ingrid Bergman in the famous 1944 George Cukor movie.
For a man so shrewd, Reid has repeatedly fallen off message and been forced to rescind threats or apologize for his insults. “He ‘Gaslights’ himself,” jokes one Republican aide, recalling Reid shaking with anger last week after being drawn into a floor fight with a Texas freshman whom a leader of Reid’s status might have better ignored.
Next to the more polished House speaker, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Reid can seem the odd man out and stubbornly partisan, as in last month’s economic stimulus debate. White House aides were offended by the accusatory tone of a recent Reid letter complaining about nominations.
Thomas Mann, a political scholar at the Brookings Institution, sees Reid as trapped by two forces. One is Bush’s decision to move right to his Republican base, and not to the political center, after his party lost power in 2006. That is the opposite of what Bill Clinton did in 1994 and what Ronald Reagandid after Republicans lost seats in the ’80s — and it leaves a dealmaker like Reid stranded, Mann says.
Second is the change in Congress itself with the rise of modern, ideologically driven political parties.
The Founding Fathers didn’t anticipate such parties when crafting their system of checks and balances between the three branches of government, Mann says. Given the rules of the Senate, the existence of such partisan-minded parties allows members of the minority — more loyal to their party and the president — to work with the executive branch to frustrate Reid’s narrow legislative majority.
All this falls on a man who lacks Job’s patience, if not his troubles.
Reid’s best hope is his 51-49 majority, and that’s counting independent Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, who has already endorsed Republican Sen. John McCain for president. Most often, Reid begins in the minority with Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton off fighting for the Democratic nomination and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Byrd in and out of the hospital.
On the bright side, the return of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden (D-Del.) from the presidential trail gives Reid a needed adviser on Iraq policy. As the economy worsens, Republicans may feel more heat on a stalled housing bill, and Reid has promised his friend Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) that he will move ahead with patent reform legislation as part of the party’s high-tech agenda.
The two came together to Congress in 1982 and sat alongside one another in the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Berman, then a smoker, recalls how Reid would silently reach across, take the Californian’s cigarettes and draw a skull and crossbones on the pack. “Understated, droll,” Berman says.
It’s a reminder of the old Reid humor seen less today. Harry Truman’s portrait adorns Reid’s outer Capitol office, but a picture of Mark Twain hangs behind his desk inside. Just as Twain chronicled Nevada’s mining days, Reid’s first book, “Searchlight,” is that rarity for any pol: a history not about himself but about the quirky little mining town where he grew up poor and that he returned to years later, only after getting past the embarrassment of this past.
This ability of Reid to step back — to be less self-involved — helps him deal with the many egos around him. More than his predecessor, South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle, Reid brings warring factions — such as liberal Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold — into his leadership circle. At the outset of this Congress, he gave up his cherished seat on the Appropriations panel to meet a commitment to a party conservative; months later, he reluctantly plunged back into the appropriations world to manage a year-end spending bill and thereby defuse pressure to dump Byrd, the 90-year-old chairman.
“He’s a manager, and no one manages that caucus better,” says former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey.
Then again, Reid is criticized for over-promising and remaining too much the manager of whip counts, for example. And it was a fresh-faced Obama who once likened the Senate’s love of intrigue to the Peloponnesian Wars.
Take the recent blowup inside the Democratic caucus over a Feingold proposal demanding Iraq troop withdrawals. Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry was miffed at the preference given Feingold while freshmen like Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill complained loudly that the party was heading down the wrong path going into November.
“This was a helluva epiphany,” said one senior Democratic senator. All the dogs came out: the party’s grumbling old guard; the younger, liberal Feingold and MoveOn.Org factions allied with Reid’s deputy, Illinois Sen. Richard J. Durbin; and a freshman class that can be aggressive on domestic issues such s trade or GI education benefits but is not as quick to press for troop withdrawals.
And then, of course, there was McConnell, who used the Feingold proposal to tie Democrats in knots on the floor and buy his party time on a key domestic issue: the housing mortgage crisis.
Despite outward tensions, the Reid-McConnell relationship is free of the personal animus that characterized Reid’s dealings with former Majority Leader Bill Frist. But the one-time Vegas trial lawyer and stolid former county judge from Kentucky make an odd couple.
The frustration shows in Reid’s voice as he describes recent bargaining over housing legislation. Reid offered each party five amendments but asked that they focus on housing — not making the president’s tax cuts permanent, for example. Instead, Republicans crafted an alternative bill that includes not only permanent tax cuts but also tort legislation, something guaranteed to rile Reid.
“This is the most damned thing I have ever seen,” he said. Going back to the often impassive McConnell offered no relief. “He doesn’t talk,” Reid says with exasperation. “He’ll say ‘I have to meet with my leadership,’ or ‘we’ll see.’ He doesn’t talk.”
“I share information when I want to, and I don’t when I don’t,” McConnell says in response. “He has the toughest job in Washington.”